Senate health care bill clears major hurdle; Republicans decry plan

By Chris Rizo | Nov 21, 2009

Harry Reid (D-Nev.)

Blanche Lincoln (D-Ark.)

Mary Landrieu (D-La.)

Mike Crapo (R-Idaho)

WASHINGTON (Legal Newsline)-The U.S. Senate narrowly moved Saturday night to advance a mammoth health care overhaul bill offered by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev.

The procedural vote, passed on party lines, was needed to begin formal debate on the proposed $848 billion health care package that all 40 Senate Republicans opposed. Discussion on the 2,074-page draft bill is expected to begin after a week-long Thanksgiving break.

The vote to move the bill to the Senate floor passed 60-39. Republican Sen. George Voinovich of Ohio missed the vote.

"Imagine if, instead of debating the bills that created Social Security or Medicare, those who didn't like it said: 'Let's just move on to the next issue,'" Reid said of the vote.

Questions remained until late Saturday afternoon as to whether Reid would have the 60 votes needed to pass cloture on a motion to proceed with bringing the bill to the full Senate. Two moderate Democrats -- Blanche Lincoln of Arkansas, Mary Landrieu of Louisiana -- were unsure they would support the motion.

Lincoln, who faces a tough reelection next year, offered the 60th vote Saturday despite her reservations. Both said Saturday that their support for cloture should not be taken as a promise they will support the chamber's final health care proposal.

"Although I don't agree with everything in this bill, I have concluded that I believe that it is more important that we begin this debate to improve our nation's health care system for all Americans rather than just simply drop the issue and walk away," Lincoln said.

For her part, Landrieu said she wants to reign in health care costs to help lighten the burden on the nation's struggling small businesses.

"There are enough significant reforms and safeguards in this bill to move forward, but much more work needs to be done before I can support this effort," she said.

With every Senate Republican opposed the legislation, Reid had to keep all of the 58 Democrats and two independents who caucus with them on board.

Republicans have decried the Senate plan unveiled on Wednesday as tantamount to a government takeover of the nation's private insurance sector, relying on a bevy of tax increases to do it.

Among other GOP sticking points: Democrats have ignored Republican calls for tort reform measures, such as medical malpractice limits, to be a part of the retooling of the nation's health care system sought by President Barack Obama.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said the plan would raise taxes, cut funding to Medicare and lead to "massive and unsustainable debt."

The legislation would expand insurance coverage to some-31 million uninsured Americans and bar insurance companies from denying coverage on the basis of pre-existing medical conditions. It would also require most individuals to purchase health coverage either through their employer, on their own or through a public plan.

The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act would be bankrolled with a tax on employer-sponsored group health plans with premiums over $8,500 for individual and $23,000 for family coverage. His plan also calls for a 5.4 percent surtax on adjusted gross personal income exceeding $1 million for couples and $500,000 for individuals.

The draft bill also calls for a new 5 percent tax on elective cosmetic medical procedures as well new annual fees to insurance companies and manufacturers of medical devices and brand-name prescription drugs.

The Senate bill would increase Medicare payroll taxes by one-half percent -- to 1.95 percent -- for individuals earning more than $200,000 or couples earning more than $250,000.

In their weekly radio address this weekend, Republicans decried Reid's plan.

"This 2,000-page bill will drive up the cost of health care insurance and medical care, not down," said Sen. Mike Crapo, R-Idaho. "This is not true health care reform, and it is not what the American people want. This bill will result in higher premiums and higher health care costs for Americans -- period."

The House-approved plan and the health care bill that is expected to be passed in the Senate will be merged in conference committee before a final bill goes to the president, who has made health care reform the cornerstone of his domestic policy agenda.

The $1 trillion House-approved plan would extend coverage to about 36 million uninsured Americans, and like the Senate plan bars insurers from denying coverage and prohibits the insurance industry from charging higher premiums to consumers with a preexisting condition.

Both the Senate and House bills contain a public insurance option, which proponents say is aimed at injecting more competition into the marketplace. Under the Senate plan, states would have the ability to opt out of the public option.

To pay for the coverage expansion under the House bill, that chamber's legislation calls for, among other things, a 5.4 percent surtax on individuals making more than $500,000 a year or families earning more than $1 million and a 2.5 percent excise tax on medical services or devices. The taxes would raise an estimated $460 billion over 10 years.

If signed by the president, the health care overhaul would mark the most significant expansion of medical care in the United States since Congress created Medicare in 1965 for the nation's elderly and disabled.

From Legal Newsline: Reach staff reporter Chris Rizo at chrisrizo@legalnewsline.com.

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